Columns, Opinions

Smith GS: Building a community for graduate students

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Last week, a fellow graduate student and I stopped at a food truck on Waterman Street to buy dinner after class. When I asked him where he wanted to sit and eat, he pointed up the block and said, “that building over there.” “You mean Faunce?” I asked. “Dude, I don’t know the names of these buildings,” he responded curtly.

A few days later, I recounted this story to another graduate student and asked what he thought about it. “I don’t know the names of most of the buildings on campus either,” he said. “My uncle went here as an undergraduate, and he always wants to talk about campus and reminisce. But I can’t have those conversations with him. I don’t even really feel like I go to Brown.”

I feel similarly. As a graduate student, I do not feel a close connection to Brown. This feeling manifests itself in my day-to-day interaction with spaces on campus. I don’t know the names of most buildings, or what happens inside them. I don’t know where to find the dining halls, the theater spaces or the engineering building. If I venture off of the small number of pathways I take to and from class every day, I feel lost. Brown’s campus, as a whole, feels unfamiliar. At the (frequently occurring) moments when I feel physically out of place on campus, I also feel distant from the larger Brown community.

On the other hand, I do feel as though I am a part of a graduate student community that is distinct from the Brown community as a whole. Some might say that they don’t see a problem with this arrangement. Why not let the graduate students remain a separate community? The problem with this idea is that the graduate student community is small, strongly divided by department and comprised of students at a wide range of life stages. This means there is a too-high probability that individual graduate students will not be able to find a community amongst their peers.

For example, a smaller department might accept a cohort of six graduate students in a given year. If two of those students are married, and one commutes from Boston (which is often the case), the other three have to hope that they like each other. If they don’t like each other, they will have to hope that they somehow get introduced to graduate students in other departments and be invited to socialize with them. For graduate students without a socially cohesive group of peers, finding a social circle is difficult. Not all graduate students are looking for a strong social network on campus, but some are — especially the younger graduate students, like myself, who are just one year out of undergraduate and are trying to make Brown a temporary home. For us, stronger ties to the larger university community would help to establish a sense of belonging and comfort on campus.

I do not think that the feeling of separation between the graduate student community and the campus community as a whole is a problem that is specific to Brown ­— it is likely endemic to graduate studies. But I do think there are steps Brown can take to bridge the separation. Brown could, for example, host more graduate school-wide events, along the lines of the welcome speech at Graduate Student Orientation. It would provide a sense of community and belonging to see a large number of your peers assembled in the same space. Brown might also consider creating a cluster of graduate student housing, so that graduate students could have the option to live near each other, rather than being spread out randomly around town. Brown could also create a peer-mentoring program where older graduate and undergraduate students volunteer to answer incoming graduate students’ questions and show them around campus. In graduate school, where independent reading, writing and research are paramount, community building should not be overlooked.

Benjamin Smith GS can be reached at benjamin_smith@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.